Altman, Robert (Vol. 116)
Robert Altman 1925–2006
The following entry presents an overview of Altman's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Robert Altman enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success with his film M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, but he is known more for his cult following than for his box office smashes. His signature techniques, including multiple voices, meandering plots, and obscure themes, have garnered him critical acclaim for his innovation, but have prevented him from gaining overwhelming popular success.
Altman was born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to German immigrant parents. He attended several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wentworth Military Academy, before entering the Air Force to become a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. In the 1940s and 1950s Altman wrote several B-movie screenplays in Los Angeles and then returned to Kansas City to direct documentaries. In the late 1950s Altman tried his luck in Hollywood once again, this time in television. For the rest of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Altman wrote, produced, or directed episodes of popular shows such as Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and U. S. Marshall. His first feature film was Countdown (1968), but he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film. Although many consider Countdown a fine science fiction film, Altman disavows the movie and has insisted on complete artistic control of his subsequent projects. Altman was chosen to direct his breakthrough feature, M∗A∗S∗H (1970) after several (according to some reports, as many as fifteen) directors turned the project down. After M∗A∗S∗H, Altman made a series of offbeat films that received mixed critical reception and were by no means commercial successes. Altman's Nashville (1975) brought the auteur back into Hollywood's good graces for a time, garnering Altman the New York Film Critics Circle awards for best film and best director, as well as multiple Academy Award nominations. Altman experienced a third resurgence in 1992 with The Player, another commerical and critical success for which Altman was again nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
M∗A∗S∗H is an anti-war film centered on a group of zany army doctors who, though compassionate and skilled surgeons, survive the war through alcohol and humor. Set during the Korean War but released during the Vietnam War, the black comedy contains many of the elements typical of Altman's other films, including improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light and irreverent humor, no standard plot, and a moving camera which records from a distance. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western and love story that subverts many of the conventions of each. In The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Altman tackles the detective genre and one of its mythical heroes, the detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is out of place in his 1970s surroundings, enabling Altman to make a social commentary on the times. Nashville (1975) analyzes the nature of power and opportunism. The story revolves around a cast of 24 characters, mostly singers, aspiring stars, and politicians in the capital of country music. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) criticizes commercialism, opportunism, and the making of a celebrity. The title itself sets up a dialectic between two versions of history, and the film makes it difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality. Vincent and Theo (1990) is Altman's only biographical film. Altman takes the unusual approach of making Vincent Van Gogh's art peripheral to the main plot. Instead, the film traces Van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo and the pain he suffered in his life. The Player (1992) is a satiric look at the Hollywood studio system and the role writers play in the system. Short Cuts (1993) is another sweeping film with multiple plot lines and a large cast of characters. The film is based on slice-of-life stories by Raymond Carver. Ready to Wear (1994) follows another multitude of characters, this time through the fashion world. The film analyzes many topics, including the nature of womanhood, relationships in American society, and the human condition.
Much disagreement surrounds the critical discussions of many of Altman's films. M∗A∗S∗H was Altman's breakout film, becoming both a critical and popular success. Many of the techniques which made M∗A∗S∗H popular, however, left critics and audiences uneasy in his subsequent films. Many reviewers criticize Altman's use of sound and overlapping dialogue; others assert that the technique lends a sense of reality to his films. Altman's The Long Goodbye created a storm of criticism, but several reviewers attribute this to Altman's alteration of the end of the Raymond Chandler novel, which made Marlowe devotees uncomfortable. Nashville was another critical and popular success for Altman, but his style still drew complaints. Some critics felt that despite Altman's finesse in juggling multiple story lines, Nashville's separate plots lacked substance individually. Most reviewers agree that plot is not the central element in Altman's work. Jonathan Baumbach asserted that "Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought …, but through movement and image." Despite individual criticisms of some of his techniques, many reviewers appreciate Altman's unique and innovative style. While he has failed to achieve consistent box office success, many critics and fans describe him as one of the best directors of his generation. Todd Boyd asserts that, "Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity."
The Delinquents [writer and director] (screenplay) 1955
The James Dean Story [writer and director] (documentary) 1957
Nightmare in Chicago [director] (film) 1967
Countdown [director] (documentary) 1968
That Cold Day in the Park [director] (film) 1969
M∗A∗S∗H [director; adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker] (screenplay) 1970
Brewster McCloud [writer and director] (screenplay) 1970
McCabe and Mrs. Miller [with Brian McKay; writer and director] (screenplay) 1971
Images [writer and director] (screenplay) 1972
The Long Goodbye [director; adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler] (screenplay) 1973
Thieves Like Us [with Calder Willingham and Joan Tewkesbury; writer and director] (screenplay) 1974
California Split [writer and director] (screenplay) 1974
Nashville [director] (film) 1975
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson [with Alan Rudolph; writer and director] (screenplay) 1976
Three Women [writer and director] (screenplay) 1977
A Wedding [with John Considine, Patricia Resnick, and Allan Nicholls; writer and director] (screenplay) 1978
Quintet [with Frank Barhydt and Resnick; writer and director] (screenplay) 1979
A Perfect Couple [with Nicholls; writer and director] (screenplay) 1979
Popeye [director] (film)...
(The entire section is 260 words.)
SOURCE: "Show-Offs," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974, pp. 273-74.
[In the following mixed review, Baumbach complains that, "what's finally wrong with The Long Goodbye is that for all its artistic pretensions, all of them, the film is not quite serious, not serious enough to carry the freight of its pretensions."]
Seeing movies, writing about them is a more subjective business than the authoritative voice of most reviews admits. One runs into a good deal of self-deception and cant among reviewers who try to make the fleeting reality on the screen seem unequivocal. There is so much fantasy invested in moviegoing that movie reviews tend to tell us more about the reviewer than the reviewed.
This is prelude to saying that Robert Altman's odd version of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, which has many incidental virtues, disappointed me and that my disappointment may have as much to do with false expectations as with the weaknesses of the film. The movie I witnessed didn't so much demythify the private eye, as reviewers advertised, as offer him to us as something else altogether—a version of the Elliott Gould persona, a wisecracking, crude, and shy New York Jew displaced in a futuristic California. Updating the Chandler novel to the seventies, Altman's The Long Goodbye is an exercise in self-revealing style, a showcase for the director's impressively...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
SOURCE: "Altman: The Empty Staircase and the Chinese Princess," in Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 5, September-October, 1974, pp. 10-17.
[In the following essay, Dempsey discusses pivotal scenes in Altman's Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller which cause the films to fall short of greatness.]
Two moments in Robert Altman's movies may hold the key to their true nature. In one, the conclusion of Thieves Like Us, travellers in a railroad station climb a staircase to a train. The film goes into slow motion, and Father Coughlin gives a populist speech on the sound track. Finally, the people disappear, leaving only the stairs. In the other, an episode of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a few cardplayers have heard that a contingent of whores on its way to the remote Northwestern town of Presbyterian Church includes one Oriental woman. Some declare that she is an "authentic Chinese princess" who, like all others, is deliriously sexual. Others scoff, but one man clinches it with a story about a friend who paid five dollars to find out, "and it's true."
Most American directors, when they have a multi-megaton hit like M∗A∗S∗H, try to detonate a series of still bigger blockbusters. Instead, Altman has made a group of offbeat, personal films which explore the genres—fantasy, Western, psychological melodrama, thriller, romance—that they nominally inhabit....
(The entire section is 7319 words.)
SOURCE: "The Delinquents (Robert Altman) (1974)," in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 215-19.
[In the following review, McCarthy states that, "Decidedly a minor work by a major artist," The Delinquents proves that Altman can tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms.]
A reasonable number of people must be aware that Robert Altman directed films before M∗A∗S∗H, but most would probably be hard pressed to come up with many titles. Some may have seen That Cold Day in the Park and a few watchful airplane passengers and television viewers might have noticed that Altman directed Countdown (with some uncalled for assistance from Jack Warner). The elongated Kraft Suspense Theatre episode Nightmare in Chicago, a definitive documentary of the city's Edens Expressway if nothing else, can claim a few partisans on the underground Chicago-Madison critical axis, and if Altman's and George W. George's distinctive and evocative The James Dean Story were rereleased today, the combined Dean and Altman cults might even help Warner Brothers turn a profit on the film (it was a dismal flop when originally released in the summer of 1957, two years after Dean's death).
But the real skeleton in Altman's closet is another film that was...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)
SOURCE: "Trashville," in Commentary, Vol. 60, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 72-5.
[In the following essay, which was reprinted in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter traces Altman's portrayal of America in Nashville.]
Why make a film about—and full of—country music, if you don't like it? I ask this not as any devotee of country music myself, well over nine-tenths of what I've heard of it striking me as a pile of lachrymose slop. But any film crammed with some 25 country-music original numbers ought, statistically, to hit on one that's better than pathetic. Even a nonentity like W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (whose principal characters are involved with a country-music band) manages to pull one attractive original tune out of its hat for its finale.
Nor do I ask the question rhetorically. There is a reason to make a movie about country music when you don't like it (and don't like the people who create it, and don't like the people who like it), and that reason is exemplified in Robert Altman's Nashville. It's a reason for which even a knowledge of the country-music milieu isn't required: Altman has himself admitted he wasn't familiar with the Nashville scene before he decided to do this job on it (his method of remedying his ignorance consisting of dispatching a hench-person, Joan Tewkesbury, to Nashville to write the script, and then casting...
(The entire section is 2895 words.)
SOURCE: "A Merging of Mythologies," in Midstream, Vol. XXI, No. 10, December. 1975, pp. 56-9.
[In the following excerpt, Sultanik compares the view of America presented by Altman in Nashville to that presented by E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime.]
It comes as no surprise, amidst the festivities kicking off the celebration of our bicentennial, that our cultural gurus have focused on two works of art as the definitive summing-up of the way we were and what we are about today.
Though most important books and movies are appreciated only by highbrows and aesthetes who perceive motifs that forever remain obscure to the big public, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Altman's Nashville have been acclaimed by the critics, and both are selling faster than 59-cent replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
There have been few occasions recently in which an "important" novel or film has met with such approval from all sectors of the American community. Gravity's Rainbow and Something Happened, probably the two most ambitious novels of the 70s, are not likely to be cuddled up with like Jacqueline Susann's and Agatha Christie's bedwarmers. On the other hand, such box-office hits as The Exorcist, The Sting, or Jaws, will surely not figure in any museum retrospective of the major artistic successes of the 70s. But Ragtime-Nashville has...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)
SOURCE: "Altman,Chabrol, and Ray," in Commentary, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 75-8.
[In the following excerpt, which was reprinted as "Buffalo Bob and an Indian," in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter discusses the ways in which Airman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is similar to his McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and he enumerates the ways in which the former film falls short of the latter.]
There's a sense in which, had Robert Altman's new film been better, I probably would have liked it less. Nashville was "better": it dumped a truckload of city-slicker's scorn for "down-home" America at our doorstep, and yet covered its tracks so well that its enthusiasts were able to claim it was actually (if ambivalently) a celebration of the grit and fortitude of our vulgar country cousins. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson comes equipped with no such cagey defenses. The American flag (which figured so prominently in the conclusion of Nashville) is raised, and from then on there's not a single shot that isn't bathed in the yellowish, "autumnal" light of decrepitude. (The film does, in fact, seem to have been photographed entirely through yellow filters.) Nor could one easily find two lines together without at least one of them smacking of some point of instruction in the film's own "history lesson."...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)
SOURCE: "Floating," in Film Comment, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1977, pp. 55-7.
[In the following essay, Greenspun asserts that, "3 Women ranks with the best Altman, though it has the pretensions of some of the worst—Brewster McCloud, Images—and it divides, as just about everyone has noticed, between a wonderful first half and a highly problematic second."]
Quite by accident, the day I last saw 3 Women I also screened John Ford's 7 Women and the recent Looking Up. For the neatness of this introduction, and for lots of other reasons, I could have wished my third film had been, say, Four Daughters, or at least Two Gals and a Guy. But Looking Up offers the symmetry of having been directed and produced by women (Linda Yellen and Karen Rosenberg), and in its abysmal slice-of-pastrami pseudo-realism it offers a sobering corrective for anyone—like me—inclined to lose patience with Robert Altman's desert swimming pools or his well-publicized immersion in the collective unconscious. Ford's last masterpiece, on the other hand, stands almost as a reproach to Altman's loose structures and his indulgence in portents in place of meaning. 7 Women looked old fashioned when it was released in 1966, and now of course it looks classic, while the fashion of 1966—A Man For All Seasons? Blow-up?—grows insignificant by comparison. Altman has...
(The entire section is 2139 words.)
SOURCE: "Wish and Power: Recent Altman," in Chicago Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 34-51.
[In the following essay, Di Piero discusses Altman's Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, and 3 Women, and asserts that, "His career may prove eventually to be the most cogent, and tenacious, of any America director."]
Public controversy contaminates perceptions, and sudden notoriety often smudges the profile of a newly famous thing. In the past several years Robert Altman, a latecomer in American filmmaking, has become the most conspicuous victim of public misperception. Although his films have inspired lively polemic, they have also drawn forth more opaque, muddled opinion than any other films of the period. Critics and audiences have been dazzled, angered, and frequently baffled by his innovative style, above all by his eccentric narrative strategies. Instead of relying on the centripetal forces of conventional narrative, whereby plot details gravitate toward nuclear characters and events, Altman has exploited a kind of centrifugal style: incidents and characters spin away from the narrative axis, the camera brushes past significant events, the sound track overlaps or truncates "meaningful" dialogue, the editing fragments conventional character exposition. It's a cunning, peripheral style, and one of the few real advances in storytelling method since...
(The entire section is 7797 words.)
SOURCE: "Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson: A Self-Portrait in Celluloid," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-25.
[In the following essay, Bernstein analyzes how Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson examines the film medium itself including the genre of the western and the making of a superstar.]
In the last decade there has been a proliferation of films which are reflexive; that is which examine the medium in terms of film making itself or the impact of film on society. Some do it directly, like Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, while others do it indirectly, as in Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up and Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (both of which deal with visual media other than film, but do so on film). These three directors, as well as several others, display an increasingly apparent and important McLuhanesque sensitivity to and intelligence about the medium with which they work.
So too do a group of directors responsible for films which are reflexive about a particular film genre, The Western. Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, for example, is one of the most successful attempts at deflating, sometimes humorously and sometimes grotesquely, the many myths engendered by the very film genre of which it is a type. Others not only...
(The entire section is 4373 words.)
SOURCE: "An Interview with Robert Altman," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 44-55.
[In the following interview, Altman discusses the course of his career and his critical reputation.]
In the Fall of 1982, film director Robert Altman visited the University of Michigan as Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication. He gave seminars on filmmaking, participated in workshops, and directed a stage production of Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress for the School of Music. Frank Beaver, Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, interviewed Altman for MQR.
[Beaver:] What attracted you to a career as a motion picture director?
[Altman:] I was a movie fan when I was a kid. I got punished many times for going into a film and not coming out, seeing it four times consecutively. I remember I had the mumps when King Kong first played at my neighborhood theater, in the early 30s. My mother was away and I told the housekeeper not to come into my room, she'd get the mumps for sure. And I snuck down to the theater with the mumps and probably contaminated the entire audience.
When I went into the Army during the second World War, I was trained in Southern California and became more a movie fan than anything else. I had a cousin who was a secretary to Myron...
(The entire section is 4023 words.)
SOURCE: "Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a Classic Western," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 79-86.
[In the following essay, Merrill analyzes Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a classic western, instead of its typical depiction as an anti-western.]
My title must seem an oddity, for Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is almost always taken to be an "anti-western," that is, a film largely devoted to severe satire, even parody, of the classical westerns. Viewed in this fashion, McCabe and Mrs. Miller will almost inevitably seem a minor, somewhat quirky example of what other filmmakers were doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the conventions of the John Wayne-type western were sabotaged in such films as George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Frank Perry's Doc, Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Viewed instead as that rarest of western subgenres, a genuine love story, McCabe and Mrs. Miller comes into proper focus as a film that rejects many classical conventions while refurbishing others. Indeed, I want to argue that Altman reinterprets the social story commonly embodied in the classical western while still managing to tell a moving tragicomic tale of star-crossed (if extremely fallible) lovers....
(The entire section is 5293 words.)
SOURCE: "Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in the Me Decade," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 87-90.
[In the following essay, Ferncase discusses Altman's retelling of the story of Philip Marlowe in his The Long Goodbye.]
In the popular culture, few artifacts are guarded with the kind of reverence that is commonly reserved for old movies. Defenders of Hollywood's silver screen legacy are frequently vociferous over perceived indignities to which the films are submitted. A figure no less than Martin Scorsese has raged over the fugitive dyes in Eastmancolor prints (which reduced hundreds of 1950s films to faded ghosts of their former selves); strike the practice of colorizing black-and-white movies for video release continues to provoke howls from film academics and movie buffs alike. The brouhaha seems to have less to do with preserving films as art objects than it does with protecting the myths that these motion pictures enshrine.
Perhaps the most popular and enduring myth is that of the detective film genre, which has appeared in endless variations from the Thin Man serials to the Miami Vice series. It was Raymond Chandler who created the archetypal investigator Philip Marlowe, a cynical but idealistic sleuth who doggedly upholds a code of loyalty, honor, and duty. Chandler's last novel, The Long Goodbye, sees Marlowe...
(The entire section is 1223 words.)
SOURCE: "Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the 'Action Painter' of American Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1992, pp. 36-42.
[In the following essay, Tibbetts discusses Altman's relationship to Kansas City, the course of his career, and his films through Vincent and Theo.]
"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"
Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it; and he made his first movies there (which is perhaps the same thing). Now, an acclaimed world-class filmmaker, he has returned to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Kansas City Film Commission in the ballroom of the downtown Crown Center Westin Hotel. There is a sense of euphoria in the air that has been growing during the three days of nonstop screenings of sixteen Altman films, press conferences, workshops with area filmmakers and reunions with family members. Altman and his hometown are both on a roll these days. He is fresh on the heels of his latest triumph, Vincent and Theo; and Kansas City itself is basking in the glow of the successful completion of two recent theatrical films that had been shot in the...
(The entire section is 4564 words.)
SOURCE: "Reimagining Raymond Carver on Film: A Talk with Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 3, 41-2.
[In the following interview, which took place in July, 1993, Altman and Gallagher discuss the adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories in Altman's film Short Cuts.]
Raymond Carver, who died all too early—at 50—of lung cancer in 1988, left a remarkable legacy of 11 volumes of short stories and poems, among them Where I'm Calling From, Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. It is a body of work that brought him international acclaim while he was alive and that has now been translated into more than 20 languages.
It was his stories in particular, with their stark evocation of America's urban and small-town blue-collar world, that made the greatest and. perhaps, the most lasting impact. He'd come from there himself—a world of old factories and sawmills, of truck stops and diners, of bars, of run-down frame houses and the frayed nerves of the families inside; in short, a kind of life in the desperate zone, where the one thing one needs is a job, any job, but where all one does is stare at the tube and hang on, scramble, come up empty.
The appeal of Carver's stories lies in their...
(The entire section is 3952 words.)
SOURCE: "The Role of the Writer in The Player: Novel and Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1994, pp. 11-5.
[In the following essay, Sugg traces the role of the writer in Altman's The Player as compared to his role in the novel of the same name.]
Though the novel The Player was written first, the film precedes the novel in most of the audience's consciousness, for few who see the film will have read the novel. So let's consider how the writer is presented in the film, and how our understanding of these changes from novel to film helps us see more clearly Robert Altman's ultimate purposes and their achievement in the film. Three sequences are of especial importance to establishing the role of the writer in the film. The first is the opening eight-minute-long shot, which satirizes the Hollywood image production system as well as the marginal role of the writer-author within it. The second sequence is the murder of the writer Kahane by Griffin the producer. And finally, perhaps the most important sequence for understanding the role of the writer is the film's conclusion, presenting a very revealing power dynamic involving the writer, the producer, the audience, and the film's auteur which has been revised significantly from the novel. An understanding of each of these three sequences, including an awareness of how each has been revised from the novel, will...
(The entire section is 3083 words.)
SOURCE: "In the Time of Earthquakes," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 8-11.
[In the following essay, Romney discusses the daredevil nature of Altman's career, including his approach to Short Cuts.]
The last word spoken in Robert Altman's film Short Cuts is "lemonade". We hear it as the camera tracks out over a briefly shaken Los Angeles, as two partying couples toast to survival in the face of a minor apocalypse. As so often happens with Altman, who is famous for his habit of scrambling soundtracks to the limit of comprehensibility, the word is audible but not entirely noticeable, certainly not impressing itself on you as central to the film's meaning. Yet, in an oblique fashion, that is precisely what it is—an operational password for the entire film. For 'Lemonade' is the title of a poem by Raymond Carver, and the poem's subject is also the film's real subject, as well as its structural principle.
Short Cuts is based on nine stories by Carver, who died in 1988 aged 50, having established himself as the poet laureate of small, desolate, claustrophobic middle American lives. 'Lemonade' itself is not directly adapted in the film, although its theme—What if this had happened, rather than that? What then?—is foregrounded in the episode involving Jack Lemmon, and runs throughout the film, both in the narratives themselves and in the way they...
(The entire section is 3293 words.)
SOURCE: "Why the Birthday Party Didn't Happen," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 5, March 10, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Wood shows how the stories Altman presents in Short Cuts differ from the Raymond Carver stories on which the film is based.]
Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a long, loose-looking movie, but the looseness is an effect, carefully worked for. Plenty of themes recur throughout—insecurity, chance, rage, damage, the long, bruising war between men and women—and although there are fourteen or fifteen stories here (based on, extrapolated from ten stories by Raymond Carver—the handouts and the introduction solemnly say nine stories and a poem, but the so-called poem is also a prose narrative), they are intricately stitched together, like a miniaturised Comédie hutmaine set in Los Angeles.
A doctor in a story of his own (about his delayed reaction to his wife's ancient infidelity) has dinner with a couple from another story (about the husband discovering the corpse of a young woman), and in yet another story he treats a child who has been hit by a car. The child's parents are the neighbours of an aging jazz singer and her difficult, cello-playing daughter. Both families have their pool cleaned by a character in another story whose wife specialises in talking dirty on the telephone for money. Two of the women in different stories are...
(The entire section is 2523 words.)
SOURCE: "A Fishy Lot, Mankind," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4745, March 11, 1994, p. 21.
[In the following review, Shone discusses the relationship between Raymond Carver's short stories and Altman's adaptation of them in his film Short Cuts, and asserts that "the union of writer and director is occasionally rocky, may in some cases have needed a little more guidance, but it has a weathered solidity."]
There is a moment in the first half-hour of Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, when a man on a fishing trip with his buddies, having set up camp by a river, flips down the hinged shades of his glasses with a casual flick of his forefinger. It's a brilliantly mock-heroic gesture—a grey old man is suddenly transformed into something mean, menacing and ready to do battle with trout. Among American directors, Altman is almost alone in getting such a thrill out of that sort of casual drill, and at moments like this—and there are several studded throughout his film's three hours—Altman and Carver seem a perfect match, a dream ticket.
They certainly appear to have a lot in common—a love of life's haphazard, messy edges and a delightfully come-off-it manner with melodrama. Carver apparently adored Altman's masterpiece, Nashville, and saw it several times. But whereas Carver's simplicity was born of a genuine distrust of...
(The entire section is 1103 words.)
SOURCE: "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema According to Robert Altman," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 2, March-April, 1994, pp. 20-1, 24, 26, 28.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses some prevailing images from Altman's films.]
In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh centers his easel in a field of glorious sunflowers. Robert Altman's camera darts about frantically, catching closeups of golden novas and overviews of entire restless constellations. Neither the director nor the painter can settle on framespace; like some sorcerer's apprentice, nature has generated a vertiginous profusion of forms, each potentially unique flower a momentary stop in a grid of pulsing yellow light. Finally, Van Gogh surrenders to chaos, smearing black pigment over his empty white canvas with a maddened hand, then tears a clutch of sunflowers out of the earth. Vased but still potent, these selected shoots become rich loci of thickly layered yellow-to-ochre pigment in painting after painting.
This extraordinary sequence in Altman's Vincent and Theo at once terrifies and intoxicates. Our vision is assaulted almost to delirium by the natural world's hot flux and largesse. Overcome and outcast by the sheer plethora of external phenomena, the artist-hero according to Altman must find some access to the heart of the matter. Racking focus, riding a slow zoom, framing a crowded, multiplaned field of vision, Altman's hungry...
(The entire section is 2495 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 35-8.
[In the following review, Hilferty states that, "Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition."]
First, the facts.
Robert Altman's new film is not a "behind-the-scenes" look at the fashion world. Nor is it a particularly fashionable treatment of that world. Nor is it a conventional narrative complete with audience-identification protagonist and tidy plot. Nor is it much like Nashville, despite its many characters and multiple vignettes.
That's why it disappointed so many. The movie flew in the face of all expectation.
Altman's new cinematic panorama should be seen on its own terms first—then you can throw knives at the screen if you see fit. Ready to Wear is an idiosyncratic odyssey, an odd essay film with its own peculiar pattern and design. Far from being "unfocused," "flimsy," or "vapid" (recent critical put-downs), every element in the film—even down to the dogshit everyone's stepping in—has a rhyme and reason, and builds up carefully to the sublime finale: designer Simone Lo's naked défilé.
Although the movie juggles about three dozen characters and their overlapping situations, there emerges,...
(The entire section is 2346 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Kansas City, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 12, December, 1996, pp. 49-50.
[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Altman's Kansas City "aimless film-making."]
"Kansas City here I come!" These are the words of Big Joe Turner's classic rhythm and blues song 'Going to Kansas City', and it's also the mission of film-making elder statesman Robert Altman in this homage to his hometown. Set in a colourful 30s world, in which the city is an oasis for the political party bosses, gangsters and jazz musicians who ran the show, Kansas City is trademark Altman, a series of interconnected episodes all linked to one central theme: the uses and abuses of power.
The film centres on the evolving relationship between two social opposites, telegraph operator Blondie O'Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her rich, laudanum-soaked hostage Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson). They wander in and out of situations: the after-hours telegraph office at the railway station from which Blondie wires Carolyn's politically powerful husband, a bar where vote-rigging is being organised by Blondie's sister's husband (Steve Buscemi), a home for unmarried African-American mothers, and a cinema featuring Blondie's role-model Jean Harlow in Hold Your Man. But the only point to this somewhat aimless journey—other than for the two women to discover they have a lot in common once...
(The entire section is 1063 words.)
SOURCE: "Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 68, 70-1.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the lack of personal references in Altman's films, noting the exception of Kansas City, which is set in Altman's home town.]
In his biography of Robert Altman, Jumping Off the Cliff. Patrick McGilligan charts some lost territory in the Altman story—lost in the sense that there are whole areas of the director's life that haven't shown up in his work. Altman was born in Kansas City. Missouri, in 1925, of German immigrant stock. The family name was originally Altmann, the loss of the second n prompting Altman on occasion to refer to himself as a "closet German." But unlike others of his filmmaking generation—say, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, who are of different stock but have their Catholicism in common with Altman—he has excluded his personal, cultural, and historical roots.
McGilligan has counted the ways: "it is next to impossible to find Helen or B. C. [Altman's parents] explicitly evoked by a character in one of his movies."… "If Altman was touched at all by the mass despair, the unemployment, the protests, the riots and the Hoovervilles of the Depression era, that vivid backdrop is absent from his movies."… "In the one hour drive of some fifty miles from Kansas City to...
(The entire section is 2533 words.)
Bush, Lyall. Review of Short Cuts: The Screenplay. Studies in Short Fiction 33, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 145-48.
Briefly discusses how the script of Short Cuts by Altman and Frank Barhydt differs from the short stories by Raymond Carver.
Dick, Bernard F. "Film Editing." In his Anatomy of Film, pp. 48-51. St. Martin's Press, 1978.
Discusses the editing in Altman's Nashville.
Edgerton, Gary. "Capra and Altman: Mythmaker and Mythologist." Literature Film Quarterly XI, No. 1 (1983): 28-35.
Compares the different mythologies of America created by Frank Capra and Robert Altman.
(The entire section is 112 words.)